Regular Vernacular

How the owner of the only printing press in England made the English language so weird

The commercial success of Caxton’s printing press proved that there was a large market of literate people in England. It's remarkable that he found this success in a vernacular language—a local language that was definitely not Latinand that had huge implications for the future of both English and Latin.

Latin was the Roman language, preserved in amber. Thanks to the diligent work of countless scribes in countless monasteries, it had survived the end of that empire, endured as the language of the church, and provided Europe with a universal literary language. Everyone we’ve written about in Letters wrote in Latin. Until William Caxton. Of surviving European 15th century manuscripts, about 70% are Latin, 30% are in vernacular languages. In the case of Caxton’s printed work, it’s the reverse: about 70% are English.

For all the trouble that printing was giving the religious and political order in Europe, we know enough about Caxton to say that his motivations were commercial and not revolutionary—he was satisfying, first, the demand of a patron and, later, the demands of a broader market. It’s telling that this market was literate in a language other than their contemporary literary universal: the importance of Latin and the Roman church in England was waning, even before the printing press.

But as Caxton continued printing English books, he had more local concerns. Such as whether to call eggs ‘egges’ or ‘eyren’.

The Middle English that Caxton inherited was inconsistent and riven by regional dialects. Caxton came to printing as a translator. He knew French and Dutch well enough to translate each, and went on to translate 26 books. But it’s not clear that he was actually good at it. Remember, the first book he printed was titled Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye. Conspicuously poorly translated is the word ‘recueil’, which could have been translated to ‘collection’, a word that absolutely existed in the 15th century. This was routine for Caxton, whose translations were typically littered with words lifted wholesale from their original language.

With that said, it’s not clear that Caxton was merely a lazy translator either. He was a rich man with rich friends. He printed books for rich people. But he came from a modest background; Caxton actively eschewed his native Kentish dialect in favour of a London dialect. Not only did he consider this more refined, this dialect was used by people educated in Latin and French, and was often itself littered with words from both languages.

Whether his word choices were motivated by class aspirations or laziness, Caxton did care about accuracy. When he published the second edition of his Canterbury Tales, he prefaced it with an apology of sorts for the differences in his first printing from Chaucer’s original, as well as an assurance that he’d improved his product. This was a reverence usually reserved for the bible. Remember, in the Early Middle Ages, it was preferable to have illiterate scribes than those who could read and change the exact text as written. Suddenly producing more books than anyone ever had in his language, Caxton knew that if everyone in England was supposed to understand them, some kind of standard would have to prevail.

And that was how Caxton found himself deciding whether English should use ‘egges’ or ‘eyren’. As owner of the only printing press in England, he chose, set the type, and printed Modern English. Frustrated students of the language have regretted his decisions ever since.